Brave New City

What if people downtown actually got smart?

What if the Dallas City Council suddenly developed a base of reasonable middle-class people who cared about the city? Who had their own money? Who had at least a tad of personal dignity and would not fall down in a slavering, social-climbing, dead damn faint if Ross Perot Jr. invited them to watch the second quarter of a football game from the back row of his skybox, standing up? Would the city just come unglued?

Look at the system now. First you have the World's Biggest Ball of String guys, the arena builders, the signature-bridge hustlers, the 2012 Olympics types. They always have the same idea: "We'll go on down there on the freeway, and we'll build us a really big, really huge kind of a big old shiny dang whatchamacallit-type deal, and, man, that is gonna put this town on the map."

Elba Garcia is the Citizens Council’s worst dream--a smart, well-educated Latino professional, successful in her own business. How do you buy off somebody like that?
Peter Calvin
Elba Garcia is the Citizens Council’s worst dream--a smart, well-educated Latino professional, successful in her own business. How do you buy off somebody like that?

I understand all that. I grew up with it in the upper Midwest. One town not too far from us was the "Sugar Beet Capital of America." They had a big ugly brown fiberglass thing on the edge of town that looked like an elephant stool. Another was the "Asparagus Capital." I think its municipal statue may still appear to me in certain nightmares.

As a young reporter, I witnessed the vice-president designate of the United States riding around on the back of a convertible in a small city in western Michigan wearing only red long johns, serving as parade marshal in the "Red Flannel Underwear Capital of the World." Nixon had just named him to replace Spiro Agnew the night before at a huge White House ball. That's Pure America, man.

So that's Part One of the local political formula: the World's Biggest Ball of String (WBBS). Then you have Part Two: the kiss-ups (KU's). In this town, it really doesn't make any difference if you're talking about the white kiss-ups, the black kiss-ups or the Latino kiss-ups. They all take their political money from the Dallas Citizens Council and the Breakfast Group (WBBS). They don't care if their constituents fall down in potholes and die. Their biggest dream of success is having one of the WBBS guys ever once call them by their first name.

In order to hold all of that together, Dallas is ruled by this very weird deal in which the WBBS guys count on minority leadership to get out the vote on all of the Ball of String projects, most of which totally screw the minority neighborhoods.

The black community still suffers under the old preacherly leadership that never quite got up to speed on integration. The rich white guys downtown aid and abet the old black leadership in trying to pretend that there has been no social progress in the city for the last 25 years so that everybody will think they need to stay down on the old plantation.

Do a fake hate-crimes attack on a black church to make it look like the Klan is still a big problem? No problem. Police won't touch you. The most important thing is to keep everybody frozen in time 25 years ago so we can keep those votes coming for the WBBS.

Immoral? Dishonest? Drilling holes in the bottom of the ship in order to make it look fully loaded? So what?

What we don't want--what the WBBS guys definitely cannot afford--is a confident, self-sufficient urban middle class dedicated to fixing the city by fixing the city. Ohhhhhh no! We need that money for the ball of string. Gonna put this burg on the map. And, of course, all of these guys happen to be in the World's Biggest Ball of String construction business.

We did have North Dallas conservative Donna Blumer on the city council. She was no KU. She has been replaced by North Dallas conservative Mitchell Rasansky, who is probably going to be independent. And, of course, we still have Laura Miller, who represents the strongly non-KU element of the urban middle class, possibly even the FU element.

A major disappointment, ever since the creation of a single-member district city council electoral system in Dallas 10 years ago, has been minority leadership. Too many minority council members elected since 1991 have turned their backs on alliances with middle-class neighborhood groups in order to wheedle nickels and dimes out of the WBBS guys.

So what would happen to Dallas if that changed? What if Dallas began to see African-American and Hispanic leaders who do not fit in with the WBBS formula? I ask, because I think we've got one coming.

When Dr. Elba Garcia announced she was going to run against Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Steve Salazar for the District 1 (West Dallas and Oak Cliff) seat, I was right in there with everybody else assuming she was intended to be the puppet of her husband, state Representative and former City Councilman Domingo Garcia. The one personal meeting I have had with her since she defeated Salazar may not be much on which to base any complicated predictions. But it's enough to convince me that Elba Garcia is not likely to be anybody's puppet.

Born in a small town in Mexico, raised in Mexico City, Garcia is the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of physicians. Her mother was a teacher. She met her husband at a wedding in Mexico when he was in his early 20s and she was 17.

He had grown up mainly in suburban Dallas but had family in Mexico. They became reacquainted a few years later when he came to Mexico City to attend college. Domingo was a young Chicano rad, and she was an upper-class Mexican university student headed for medical or dental school.

"His Spanish was terrible, and my English was really bad, but we were able to communicate because of our social ideas," she said. We spoke in the living room of her Oak Cliff home across the street from Lake Cliff Park. Their house, known as "La Casa Blanca," is on the National Register of Historic Places.

By the time they married in 1984, she had completed dental school in Mexico, and he had completed law school in the United States. "We knew that whoever moved to the other one's country, Domingo or I, that one would have to go back to school."

She moved here and went all the way back through dental school at Baylor University. She graduated, again, in 1990. Two years ago she bought a practice in Oak Cliff. She has five dental associates working in the practice and says she can afford both the time and financial cost of serving on the council.

She told me her husband urged her to run after listening to her complain for years about the low quality of basic city services in older neighborhoods.

"I was sure we needed a change in basic services," she said. "I live across the street from a park, and I am sick of the problems with the trash in the park, the dogs running loose, the lights needing replacement. I called the city all the time, and I became very frustrated at times.

"Domingo finally said, 'You are always complaining. Why don't you run for office and do something about it?' I think he was partially kidding. He may have been surprised when I said, 'I think I will.'"

Great. All very interesting. But now it's time in the conversation for a test question. You know: like when the dentist takes the sharp pointy thing and says, "Tell me if you feel this."

I ask: "How do you feel about the effort to bring the Olympics to Dallas in 2012?"

She doesn't miss a beat.

"I believe the Olympics is a great idea, but if that task is going to take away a single police officer or a single animal control officer, then we need to consider that we may not be able to afford it.

"In the economic boom of the last 10 years, it was OK to say, 'Let's go ahead and do bigger things.' But I think we may have gotten carried away. If we don't start reprioritizing basic services, we are going to have a bigger problem."

Yeah. Well, that might sound like a perfectly reasonable answer to the uninitiati, but it definitely ain't what the WBBS guys want to hear. Their approach on the Olympics has been strictly, "Here is the blank contract, hurry up and sign it."

So I try another probe. "How do you feel about the toll road they want to build along the levees on the Trinity River?"

"For District 1, I have very mixed feelings about that. We will mobilize to be sure they understand that the neighborhoods do not want a toll road on our side of the river. If the downtown interests disagree, we will go to downtown..."

I can't constrain myself. I interject, "And burn it down?"

She laughs. "No, that would be Domingo. I would work with downtown to come up with a compromise."

So, driving away from La Casa Blanca, this is what I'm thinking. The WBBS boys only know how to deal with two kinds of people: 1. the people who cave in immediately to their every whim, and 2. the ones who dare to raise questions, whom they immediately try to marginalize as dangerous nut cases. But what if you start to get a core, however small, of smart, reasonable, middle-of-the-road, middle-class people, people who can't be so easily marginalized, who are dedicated to rebuilding the city the old-fashioned way, by rebuilding the city?

What happens to the World's Biggest Ball of String guys then?

And is it even possible that Garcia, Miller and Rasansky together would form enough of a center of gravity to encourage some of the other munchkins on the council to come tap-dancing out from under their flowers and actually stick up for their constituents once in a while?

Perchance to dream.

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